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The Church History Museum: A Tour through the Main Floor

DSC05710By Eric Johnson

DSC05708Listen to a 3-part podcast that aired Mon-Wed, Oct. 19-22, 2015.  Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is the number-one tourist site for all of Utah. More tourists come here than Zion. More than Bryce. And even more than Moab. Fly into Salt Lake City’s International Airport and, with few spare hours, it is possible to be picked up at the airport in an LDS Church-owned van for a trip to tour Temple Square. Mormon missionaries–mostly female–will do their best to get the address and phone information from nonmembers in order to have missionaries visit them when the visitors get home. Ingenious.

A few days before the LDS Church gathered for the October 2015 General Conference, the Church History Museum was reopened after a full year of remodeling. The basement floor–which includes a theater–was unchanged, and for the most part so was the second story, which still contains displays featuring each of Mormonism’s prophets as well as an interactive children’s museum and plenty of paintings. However, the main floor was completely revamped, with the latest technological museum displays and interactive set-ups added.

We weren’t sure just what would be changed, so we were very curious when we visited the museum on Saturday morning, October 3, 2015 . The crux of this article will be to display photos from our visit and some analysis of several exhibits.

The Story of Joseph SmithDSC05664

DSC05632The very existence of this museum centers around the man Joseph Smith. “Has revelation ceased?” one display  asked. “Are miracles no more? Has reason replaced faith?” Obviously, the answer is NO! NO! NO! While they might define “revelation,” “miracles,” and “reason” and “faith” differently, most Evangelical and Protestant Christians going through this museum will have no problem with this. Of course, God can still have revelation today. (We call it a “special revelation,” which is the Bible.) If God wants to work miracles, couldn’t an omnipotent God do so? And aren’t we supposed to have faith? Yes, of course. This panel is helpful to help get the visitor’s guard down.

Smith’s story from the beginning is emphasized. The painting to the right depicts Joseph Smith’s supposed 1823 visit from the Angel Moroni, who as the story goes was the last Nephite from 14 centuries before. I always find it interesting how Smith could have this magnificent angel of light visit him, lighting up the room, and a conversation took place while his brothers supposedly slept!

Called “the keystone” of the Mormon religion, the Book of Mormon plays a prominent role in the museum. Nobody could leave the museum and not understand how important this story is to the LDS religion itself. For instance, the picture at the right shows a display of replicas representing the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. The printing press that was originally used to print the first edition is also on display, just as it had been in the previous museum. DSC05674

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The Weight of the Plates

The story of Joseph Smith hiding the plates in a log and then carrying them several miles while being attacked three different times takes up an entire room. A replica set of the plates (of course, DSC05665since Mormonism says that the original plates were taken back by the angel) sits under glass for everyone to admire. In addition, an interactive display was made available for people to “lift the plates.,  with handle bars for convenience. DSC05667According to Joe, a museum volunteer, the plates in the display weighed only 40 pounds because this is what Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris claimed they were. In addition, the plates were not made of gold because they were just “golden” in color. He claimed they were made with different alloys. When we showed him Joseph Smith-History 1:34 (Pearl of Great Price) on a smart phone to show how this was not the case, the words supposedly spoken by the angel surprised him. It reads:

 He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants

“They’re going to have to change our script,” he said sheepishly, admitting that this was his first day on the job. When another volunteer came over to hear what he was saying, he told her, “That man just showed me that the plates were made of gold and were not just golden.”DSC05680

I asked him if this information would change his mind about the weight of the plates. After all, if the plates really were made of gold, the size of the plates–one-sixth of a cubit foot as described by Smith–would equal about 200 pounds, since gold weighs about 1200 pounds per cubit foot. “That would be impossible to carry,” the museum employee said. “They had to have weighed much less.” Even if the plates were made with sheet metal, I told him, they would be at least 80 pounds. Even that number was too much for Joe. “I have to go with Martin Harris saying they were 40 or 50 pounds,” he concluded, while he admitted that he couldn’t explain how they could have been this light. It was obvious the sign “What were the Golden Plates Like?” is deceptive. Somehow, though, I think that any changes in the signage won’t be happening any time soon.

For more on this topic, here are some excellent links:


The Translation of the Book of Mormon

DSC05658A display just around the corner from the gold plates featured the seer stone used by Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon. (However, the seer stone itself was not on display.)  According to the sign,

“Joseph Smith had to learn how to use physical instruments to translate. As a young man, he used a seer stone to find lost objects. but as he grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that could use the seer stone, in addition to the spectacles for the higher purpose of translating scripture.”

More than a month before the museum opened, members from the church’s history department announced the unveiling of this stone In the October 2015 Ensign magazine, an article titled “Joseph the Seer” written by Richard E. Turley, Jr.–the Assistant Church Historian and Recorder–along with Robin S. Jensen and Mark Ashurst-McGee explained how, as the subtitle put it, “the historical record clarifies how Joseph Smith fulfilled his role as a seer and translated the Book of Mormon” (p. 49).

According to the article’s introduction:DSC05660

The most visible sign of Joseph Smith’s role as a seer in the newly formed Church was the Book of Mormon, which he repeatedly explained was translated “by the gift and power of God.” Many of those closest to Joseph in the year before the Church’s organization had witnessed the process by which the Book of Mormon came forth and had some understanding of the meaning of the word seer (p. 49).

It explained on page 50,

The young Joseph Smith accepted such familiar folk ways of his day, including the idea of using seer stones to view lost or hidden objects.

The sign in the museum says something quite similar:

Joseph Smith had to know how to use physical instruments to translate. As a young man, he used a seer stone to find lost objects. But as he grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use the seer stone, in addition to the spectacles, for the higher purpose of translating scripture.

Referring to the “spectacles,” also know as the “Urim and Thummin,” the article explains on page 51 how these were two stones to be used in translating the plates were

as white or clear in appearance, set in silver bows or rims like modern eyeglasses or spectacles, and connected to a large breastplate. As described, this seeric device would have been bulky.

It also said,

In fact, historical evidence shows that in addition to the two seer stones known as “interpreters,” Joseph Smith used at least one other seer stone in translating the Book of Mormon, often placing it into a hat in order to block out light. According to Joseph’s contemporaries, he did this in order to better view the words on the stone.

ImageFor so many years, the LDS Church did not explain the seer stone in formats easily accessible to the general public or its membership. However, now the church appears to be admitting the actual method of how the plates were supposedly translated. Still, with such an emphasis on this seer stone, no depiction of Smith using the stone in his hat while translating the Book of Mormon was displayed anywhere. My suggestion? Using the illustration to the right, give the visitor a choice: A or B. I would bet that the average Latter-day Saint would vote “B.” The perfect object lesson is have this person read the seer stone inscription. Instant education!

For more information on this topic, watch Bill McKeever explain the Book of Mormon translation in the 10-minute YouTube video A Seer Stone and a Hat: “Translating the Book of Mormon.

Joseph’s Polygamous Ways

DSC05649While there was not a great deal of emphasis of it at the museum, the issue of Smith’s polygamous ways did play a role. Until the last few years, many Latter-day Saints were unaware about his many marriages. The idea that Smith married approximately 34 women, including a third who were teenagers (he was twice their age) and another third who were married to living husbands can be shocking. While this information is not available at the museum, it is true that the church has become more transparent about this issue, even stating in the October 2014 Gospel Topics essay Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo  that Smith had between 30-40 wives. This admission rocked many Latter-day Saint boats! (For more on this topic, you can see MRM’s written response to this article covering the essay point by point as well as listen to our Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast response that originally aired November 10-23, 2014:  Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4 Part 5  Part 6  Part 7  Part 8  Part 9  Part 10  Part 11  Part 12. Also, we invite you to check out One sign explained how the Mormons “had been asked to live the principle of plural marriage” because they “felt that they were obeying a revelation that had been given to them from God.” Another sign explained,

Monogamy is God’s standard for marriage unless He declares otherwise. In 1831, when Joseph Smith was making inspired revisions in the King James Version of the Bible, he asked God why He had permitted plural marriage in biblical times. God revealed that He had directed it for His own specific purposes, and then He commanded Joseph to live the principle and introduce it to the Saints.

What many Latter-day Saints may not know is that Smith began practicing plural marriage in the early 1830s. Yet this teaching was never voted upon by the membership during his lifetime. D&C DSC05633132 did not become canonized until much later after Smith’s 1844 death. So how can we know that Smith was told by God to practice something that has never been accepted by Jews or Christians since the time of Christ? We must take the LDS Church’s word.

Another sign explained how “Emma vacillated between accepting and rejecting the revelation on plural marriage.” The fact of the matter is, she only “accepted” it for a short period of time to appease her husband. Later, she grew to hate plural marriage and did everything she could to make life miserable for the girls and women who married her husband. For instance, Eliza Snow–the woman who has written so many LDS hymns–married Joseph, which angered Emma. According to Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith written by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery:

When the full realization of the relationship between her friend Eliza and her husband Joseph came to her, Emma was stunned. She unquestionably reacted strongly, but the incident is so shrouded in Mormon folk talk and legend that it becomes difficult to determine what actually happened. Although no contemporary account of the incident between Emma and Eliza remains extant, evidence leads to the conclusion that some sort of physical confrontation occurred between the two women.

Whether the story involves Emma beating up Eliza with a broomstick or pushing her down the stairs to cause a miscarriage, nobody will ever know for sure. Another interesting story involves Eliza Maria Partridge, who is quoted on a slide in an interactive display. Saying how Joseph Smith and Eliza were married, the slide quotes from Eliza (whose younger sister Emily also married Joseph):


“[At Nauvoo]  a woman living in polygamy dared not let it be known, and nothing but a firm desire to keep the commandments of the Lord could have induced a girl to marry in that way. I thought my trials were very severe in this life, and I am often led to wonder how it was that a person of my temperament could get along with it and not rebel. But I know it was the Lord who kept me from opposing His plans, although in my heart I felt that I could not submit to them. But I did, and I am thankful to my Heavenly Father for the care He had over me in those troublous times.”

The story of how the marriage took place ought to be repeated here, according to Mormon Enigma:

“For two months, from March to May (1843), Joseph appears to have talked with Emma about plural marriage. He apparently used their rides together to teach her the necessity of the endowment and sealing. There is no evidence that she ever opposed him on any doctrine but plural marriage. Convinced that it was necessary for her salvation and essential to their continued relationship, she may have decided to compromise with Joseph. In May 1843 she finally agreed to give Joseph other wives if she could choose them. Any of Joseph’s other wives, who by now numbered at least sixteen, would have been more comfortable if they had had Emma’s approval. Emma chose the two sets of sisters then living in her house, Emily and Eliza Partridge and Sarah and Maria Lawrence. Joseph had finally converted Emma to plural marriage, but not so fully that he dared tell her he had married the Partridge sisters two months earlier. Emma said that ‘to save family trouble Brother Joseph thought it best to have another ceremony performed…[Emma] had her feelings, and so we though there was no use in saying anything about it so long as she had chosen us herself.” (pp. 142-143)

After Smith publicly married the sisters, doubts apparently prevailed in Emma’s mind. As Mormon Engima explains,

Emma’s capitulation, however, was only momentary. Emily wrote that “‘Emma seemed to feel well until the ceremony was over, when almost before she could draw a second breath, she turned, and was more bitter in her feelings than ever before, if possible, and before the day was over she turned around or repented what she had done and kept Joseph up till very late in the night talking to him.” Understandably, Emily and Eliza, whose marriages Emma had sanctioned one moment and disapproved the next, had feelings of their own. “She had, as it were bound us to the ship and carried us to mid ocean, then threw us over board to sink or swim, as the case might be.”

William Clayton’s diary entry for that same day explains why Emma was angry. Joseph told Clayton that he “had had a little trouble with sis. E[mma].” He had been with Eliza Partridge in an upstairs room when he heard someone on the stairs and quickly shut the door “not knowing who it was and held it. [Emma] came to the door & called Eliza 4 times & tried to force open the door. Prest. [Smith] opened it & told her the cause etc. She seemed must irritated.” Why would Joseph have held the door until Emma had called Eliza Partridge’s name four times? Did Emma believe that Joseph and Eliza were hiding something from her? Emily remembered that Emma “kept close watch on us. If we were missing for a few minutes and Joseph was not at home the house was searched from top to bottom and from one end to the other and if we were not found the neighborhood was searched until we were found.” Emma was not successful in keeping Joseph from meeting with his wives. Emily Partridge would one day testify under oath that she “roomed” with Joseph on the night of her second marriage to him while Emma, she believed, was in the house at the time. She also testified that she had “slept with him” between her first marriage and the second ceremony. (pp. 143-144)

To make it appear that everything was compatible with Emma and these other wives is just not accurate. As page 145 states, “Emma began to talk as firmly and urgently to Joseph about abandoning plural marriage as he had formerly talked to her about accepting it.” At the end of Emma’s life, she denied that Smith had been polygamous. She was visited by Parley P. Pratt, Jr., and questioned:

“Did he have any more wives than you?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Did he receive the revelation on plural marriage?”

“Not to my knowledge,” she repeated. (p. 298)

On another occasion, she was questioned again, this time by her son:

“Did he not have other wives than yourself.”

“He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.”

“Did he not hold marital relations with women other than yourself?”

“He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.” (p. 301)

Another slide in the display provides a quote from Hebert and Vilate Kimball. No mention is made of the time that Joseph Smith approached Heber and told him how God wanted him to give his wife Vilate to Joseph. It was an excruciating decision, but finally Heber gave permission for this to happen. Joseph Smith then explained that he was only testing Heber and really didn’t want the man’s wife. However, he did end up marrying the Kimballs’ fourteen-year old daughter, Helen, who told the following story (spelling intact):

DSC05654“Just previous to my father’s starting up his last mission but one [June 10, 1843], to the Eastern States, he taught me the principle of Celestial marriage, and having a great desire to be connected with the Prophet Joseph, he offered me to him; this I afterwards learned from the Prophet’s own mouth. My father had but one lamb, but willingly laid her upon the alter. how cruel this seemed to the mother whose heartstrings were already stretched untile they were ready to snap asunder for he had taken Sarah Noon to wife & she thought she had made sufficient sacrifise but the Lord required more. I will pass over the temptations which I had during the twenty four hours after my father introduced to me the principle & asked me if I would be sealed to Joseph who cam next morning & with my parents I heard him teach & explain the principle of Celestial marriage–after which he said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that . . . of your fathers household & all of your kindred.’ I willingly gave myself to purchase so glorious a reward. None but God & angels could see my mother’s bleeding heart, when Joseph asked her if she was willing, she replied ‘If Helen is wiling I have nothing more to say.’ She had witnessed the sufferings of others, who were older & who better understood the step they were taking, & to see her child, who had scarcely seen her fifteenth summer, following in the same thorny path, in her mind she saw the misery which was so sure to come as the sun was to ruse and set; but it was all hidden from me.” (p. 146)

To say that Emma “vacillated” between accepting or rejecting plural marriage–as recorded on the slide referred to above– isn’t the whole story. Of course, none of what I have described here is talked about in the museum.

The “Martyrdom” of Joseph SmithDSC05686

DSC05685Probably the most interesting part of the museum is the section dealing with the “martydom” of Joseph Smith. A number of artifacts that had been in the old museum remain in the new version. For instance, the death masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are in a glass case that allows the viewer to walk around them and see all angles. On the far left is the death mask of Joseph Smith, and to the far right is Hyrum Smith (who was shot at the bridge of his nose). The pocket watch (with a bullet hole) that saved John Taylor’s life is also prominently displayed, as the picture shows. And so are the two guns, one of which (the Pepperbox) that Joseph Smith used to shoot three people, two of whom died.
According to John Taylor in the History of the Church, Joseph Smith “pulled the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died” (History of the Church 7:102-103).DSC05639

DSC05646The oil painting by Casey Childs (above), apparently commissioned by the church and took three years to complete, really surprised us. Portrayed on the left side of this full-wall painting are those face-darkened men belonging to the mob. On the other side of the door are Hyrum Smith, Dr. Willard Richards, John Taylor and Joseph Smith. At first, I didn’t notice, but then I saw pistols in the pockets of the two Smiths. See below. (Hyrum, who stands to the left of the three men at the door, has a gun, though it’s hard to see in my picture. Trust me, it is there.) Joseph’s pistol hangs out prominently in his left pocket. What is surprising about the return of the guns (they were included in the first museum) is how a scene at the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti, UT was changed back in the early 2000s that portrayed Joseph Smith opening up the prison door and firing the gun.  Yet here in the mural the guns cannot be denied. Of course, no mention is made of Smith shooting anyone or anyone dying. The description with the painting reads, “A lethal shot was fired through the door, killing Hyrum. Seconds later, Joseph was also fatally hit.” Perhaps telling the whole story would be a bit too much for many faithful Latter-day Saints.


DSC05635DSC05689        DSC05636

DSC05644Another interesting fact is that the Pepperbox revolver that was displayed in the original museum is a different gun from what is displayed in the new museum! Consider the bottom gun in the picture above (left), which is from the original museum. This is a Pepperbox pistol. Meanwhile, the picture to the right is from the newly remodeled museum. Notice how much shorter the top gun in this second picture is when compared with the bottom gun in the first picture. While we have heard that the gun in the second museum is the “right” gun, we are not quite sure why the original gun wasn’t placed in the first museum. How long have the church historians known about this? We only heard about this from a second-hand source. There were no signs to explain how this pistol was the real McCoy.

For more on the killing of Joseph Smith:


The newly remodeled Church History Museum is going to confuse a lot of people. Why, for instance, are the church historians bringing out information that was never emphasized in the past (i.e. the seer stone)? Why are the plates called “golden” when they were really made of gold? And why display the guns smuggled into the Carthage Jail while portraying the famous murder scene with guns in Joseph’s and Hyrum’s pockets? In addition, the information here could end up causing Christians confusion, especially if they have limited understanding of Mormonism. Some may even be sympathetic to the history described in the museum and walk away thinking Mormonism and Christianity are synonymous terms. Either way, the reaction of those visiting this new museum will probably not be neutral, as people will walk out with either a positive or negative perspective. As for us, we will encourage people to visit the museum in hopes that a more accurate understanding of Mormonism might be garnered by those things the church is willing to tell.

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